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Salsa Labs Increases Agility to Support Customer Needs with Powerful SaaS Platform Backed by Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization
August 30, 2011
Customer: Salsa Labs
"Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization frees us of that time-consuming process, making deployment a snap. Few competitors can boast similar capabilities.” Justin Nemmers, Chief Operating Officer, Salsa Labs
To effectively support a highly active web-based Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) platform on-the-fly to accommodate growth without increasing datacenter footprint or power consumption and to consolidate a variety of physical equipment
Red Hat® Enterprise Linux on Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization with NetApp FAS2050 storage system
Red Hat Enterprise Linux with Red Hat clustering, Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization, Red Hat Network Satellite, Red Hat Directory Server, Oracle MySQL, MongoDB, NetApp FAS2050, Microsoft Windows, Salsa platform running on Apache Tomcat
HP BladeSystem C-Class dual-socket/dual-core and dual-socket/quad-core server blades with memory ranging from 32 to 160 gigabytes max
Increased agility to more quickly respond to customer requirements; Improved productivity of IT staff; Accelerated time-to-deployment; Increased utilization of IT assets; Improved business continuity and availability of IT services: Improved performance; Streamlined system maintenance; Decreased power consumption
When Salsa Labs founders April Pedersen (a nonprofit veteran) and Chris Lundberg (a software developer) met in Washington, D.C. in 2003, they discovered a shared vision for using emerging online tools to revolutionize organizing and to empower nonprofits, unions, political organizations, and others. Today, their company reflects that vision—providing the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) Salsa platform, which delivers an integrated, flexible, and affordable set of tools for energizing and organizing people. With headquarters in the nation’s capital, an office in Austin, Texas, and a worldwide network of partners and developers, Salsa Labs supports a training and online community consisting of more than 2,000 plus groups and 50 million members, donors, and activists.
In 2004, with their SaaS organizing platform in active development, Pedersen and Lundberg founded DemocracyinAction.org with the goal of providing online organizing tools and support to progressive nonprofits. With worldwide activists discovering the power of integrated online tools for organizing and communicating with supporters, their idea took off. Soon, other organizations in the nonprofit and political sectors began clamoring for similar tools, and Salsa Labs was born to support them.
Since then, Salsa Labs has grown by 30-40 percent annually, thanks to a superior technology platform and the ability to adapt to a fast-changing online communications landscape. Today, clients ranging from the Center for Biological Diversity to the AFL-CIO rely on Salsa’s key functionality—that is, user engagement pages, a back-end database, and a mass email blaster—to provide customized websites that integrate everything from event and donation management to advocacy campaigns, chapter and volunteer management, interactive forms, and more.
To accommodate this growth, Salsa Labs had acquired a wide variety of technology over the years. Five years in, the result was a datacenter crammed with gear and no easy way to add capacity on the fly or at a low price point. “We had a bunch of gear—some old, some new—and some systems were being overused while others were being underused,” said Justin Nemmers. “Because we’d largely adhered to a one-function-per-server strategy, we ended up with old, sometimes unreliable gear running mission-critical services. The net effect was that we were wasting a ton of power and cooling, and we were having a hard time provisioning new capacity or capabilities easily or cost-effectively. We had a hodgepodge of hardware, as well as capabilities being served across that hardware, and it was clear that we needed to virtualize the environment.”
With Salsa Labs already a long-time Red Hat Enterprise Linux user, choosing Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization for the company’s revamped datacenter was a virtual no-brainer. “Nobody else was really in the running when it came to choosing a virtualization platform,” said Nemmers. “I had a basic feature set in mind, including live migration, high availability, robust management, rapid provisioning of additional systems, the ability to dynamically add hosting capacity, and an offline management infrastructure. Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization was able to provide all of this. And because both products—Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization—come from the same vendor, they behave similarly. For us, the combination of a simplified stack and a much lower price than competing products made Red Hat’s virtualization solution the clear winner.”
Salsa Labs’ environment consisted of the Java-based Salsa web application running on Apache Tomcat, Nginx SSL termination and caching, HAProxy virtual load balancers with MySQL databases and Red Hat Enterprise Linux.
The IT team incrementally migrated workloads from physical to virtual servers and then turned the harvested physical servers into hypervisor host servers and loaded the virtualization cluster. After a successful migration to the new Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization environment, the company is currently running 180 virtual machines on six Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization hosts. The Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization deployment is dedicated to supporting Salsa Labs’ primary production workloads, including the core SaaS platform and tools delivered via the web, plus web clusters, load balancers, and database workloads. The database servers are both primary and replicate My SQL database instances, requiring up to 20 GB in virtual RAM. Services including (but not limited to) name servers, directory servers, and mailers for bulk e-mailings are also virtualized on the hypervisor hosts system. The IT team’s operational practice for maintaining sufficient capacity for balancing load spikes and for high availability is to keep one of the hypervisor hosts relatively unburdened and then to relieve any other host that exceeds 75 percent utilization with programmatic load balancing.
“There’s no pathway through the application that does not touch Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization, and there’s not one out of the 2.5 billion emails sent through Salsa last year that didn’t touch the virtualized environment in some way,” said Nemmers.
To manage this burgeoning virtual environment, Salsa Labs relies on Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization Manager features such as live migration, prioritized high availability, load balancing, system scheduler, power saving, and more.
Further strengthening the virtual environment is the tight integration between Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization and the solution Salsa Labs chose for streamlining storage management–the NetApp FAS2050 storage system. The addition of the NetApp FAS storage system means that Salsa Labs can now quickly add or remove capacity on demand—critical in a business where demand and usage can change rapidly based on election seasons, world events, and fundraising drives.
Eighteen months after deploying Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization, Salsa Labs continues to enjoy the benefits of its virtualized environment. Chief among them is the agility it affords. Processes that used to take days or even weeks, including standing up new nodes, rolling out new software, and updating web servers, can now be accomplished in minutes or even seconds by simply clicking a couple of buttons in the virtualized environment. This translates to immediate benefits for both the company and its customers.
“With Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization, deploying a new node is no different than starting a regular account,” said Nemmers. “This means we can hit the ground running when customers want to become node clients by fulfilling their requests immediately. This is a huge improvement over the past when clients might have had to wait days or even weeks for this to happen.”
With one-click node creation and software updating, it’s not surprising that Nemmers has also watched his own staff become much more productive since the Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization deployment. With just three system administrators overseeing Salsa Labs’ entire network, those employees are now spending much less time in the company’s Northern Virginia datacenter and more time working on mission-critical IT projects.
“If something failed in the past, someone had to drive to the datacenter to address the problem,” said Nemmers. “Today, we can get to the console for any of those systems through Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization. As a result, we no longer worry about out-of-band management.” In addition, as Salsa Labs has shed physical gear in its move to virtualization, the environment has become easier to conceptualize and manage thanks to the simplification and flattening that have occurred.
Clearly, fewer physical servers also means a reduced footprint and lower power consumption. As a result, the company is able to continue to add capacity without having to obtain more physical space, which translates to significant savings down the road. “Even though we’re growing and adding capacity, I can put in two or three more blades for the same power consumption as an old Super Micro Box,” said Nemmers. “We haven’t had to rent any additional racks to get more power.”
Combine these benefits with the better service levels achieved through the high availability and load balancing provided by Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization, and it all adds up to a significant competitive advantage for Salsa Labs. “Our competitors are stuck in the process of setting up new instances of their applications for every client,” said Nemmers. “Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization frees us of that time-consuming process, making deployment a snap. None of our competitors can boast similar capabilities.”
In June 2011, with its business growing by leaps and bounds, Salsa Labs served up an average of 1.34 terabytes of data per month and plans to continue relying on Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization to increase its capacity and capabilities without adding to its physical infrastructure.